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How Bad is Sugar Consumption During the Holidays?

Health Tips brought to you by U.S. HealthWorks Medical Group. Our experienced medical experts provide information here that we hope will broaden your healthcare knowledge.

Today we talk to Dr. A.K. Misra, medical director for U.S. HealthWorks in South San Francisco, about the effects of eating sugar during the holidays. Dr. Misra is double board certified in Sports Medicine and Internal Medicine.

Q: The holidays are here, and while we all want to enjoy some sweet treats and special meals with family and friends, how can we do so without going overboard on sugar consumption and seeing our diets suffer?

A: Treats can be hard on your health, however, I believe it is important to enjoy foods for whatever special occasion one may wish to celebrate. The truth is that if you have sound dietary habits and eat healthy most of the time, there is room to “wobble.” As I mentioned in my prior blog on the topic of obesity, I generally recommend the “80-20” rule – eat like an Olympic athlete and nutritionist 80% of the time, and the remaining 20% can be pleasure/comfort food during special times of the year, including the holidays.

However, for those who tend not to be good about their diets, the holidays become a period where they may put on significant weight they find difficult to lose. A big reason for this is that some foods contain sugar that isn’t immediately obvious to the untrained eye. Here is a good breakdown of the benefits of cutting out sugar and a way to determine where sugar is present in foods that may often be overlooked.

Q: So what is exactly going on here? What are the physiologic effects of this excessive sugar consumption?

A: Fundamentally the human body today is being overloaded with sugar well beyond the evolutionary capacity we are supposed to consume, resulting in conditions that didn’t even exist a short while ago. This brief piece from CNN does a good job highlighting the problem we face. It features my mentor from my postdoctoral training (Dr. Lustig), and my colleague (Dr. Gupta) – here they put the essential take-home messages into an easy-to-read summary.

The slide below also touches on two other rarely discussed points:

  • Type 2 diabetes is reversible (one of my earlier blog posts discusses this as well)
  • Meat/flesh consumption also increases the risk of diabetes, as demonstrated in this slide from Harvard University.

Q: How are major food companies reacting to medical findings surrounding sugar consumption? Are they acting responsibly?

A: Overall, there is little concern from the food industry. On one hand, I am happy to see that beverages and restaurants are now highlighting caloric contents on cans/labels of beverages and on restaurant menus. While these are positive developments, I don’t think those numbers necessarily carry much meaning to most people when presented this way. On the other hand, as reports come out about big brands such as Coca-Cola, I worry about the influence of big dollars funding work like this, with an ulterior motive. We need to be better informed consumers for our own health and longevity. This process starts with the correct information and educating ourselves accordingly.

Q: What does all this mean for us when it comes to holiday sugar consumption?

A: It essentially comes down to abiding by the following tips:

  • Be thoughtful before consuming – Don’t eat holiday treats in addition to what you normally eat. Instead, swap out a normal midday snack for a little treat.
  • Make a plan – Before attending a holiday party, eat a light, healthy meal so you won’t be starving and overdo it on sweets, snacks and drinks.
  • Understand the ingredients – Be an educated consumer and read labels. Try to know what is in your food and find healthy alternatives when you can’t identify ingredients.
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